YouTube Studies

Pitzer College class is both dedicated to and cataloged on the video-sharing Web site.
September 6, 2007

If you're reading this article on a Tuesday or Thursday between noon and 1:10 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, then a class called "Learning From YouTube" is meeting right now at Pitzer College.

Not that the time or place really matters -- you can experience this course anytime you want. For the first time this fall, Pitzer is offering a class about the popular video-sharing Web site, and every session is being filmed and posted on that site (not quite live, but close to it).

You can see it for yourself, more than 30 minutes of the opening class, right here on the course's YouTube page. You can see the professor, who introduces herself to her students the same way she introduces herself to the online world, through a no-frills eight-minute video.

You can see a few students and hear their commentary. (And you thought it was tough to be the shy student in class before.)

Take, for example, this opening dialogue:

"We're recording," says Alexandra Juhasz, a professor of media studies who teaches the course. "You should know right now that if you don't want to be seen on YouTube you should be somewhere behind the camera. We're going to be recording all semester, so you better get used to it."

"That's so awkward," someone in the class mumbles -- even though students knew coming in of the arrangement.

For a professor, there's nothing quite like the possibility of having your lectures or class discussions filmed and mocked on YouTube to turn you off to the medium. But Juhasz, describing the class in both her introductory video and in a phone interview as an "experiment," looks at outside attention in a different way.

She welcomes it. In fact, she is hopeful that people outside the college will take the unusual invitation to peek inside a classroom and maybe even post their own video responses. (Though her instinct says most people won't want to watch an hour of academic chatter.)

In the spirit of full disclosure, Juhasz even lists on the YouTube course page her interests, which include reading novels, watching movies, jogging, ballet, and protesting the war and [the Bush] administration -- not necessarily in that order.

Faculty members have experimented with posting lectures and course material online before, and some have argued that YouTube is a helpful tool for academics, but the devotion of an entire course to the Web site and the all-access pass Pitzer is providing puts the liberal arts college on another plane.

"It's a class like I've never taught before and a class like I'm not certain has ever been taught before," Juhasz says during her introductory video.

You'd expect that a professor teaching a class on and about YouTube would be a huge booster of the site. But not Juhasz. She says she is "underwhelmed" and "unsatisfied" by much of the content, which she describes as spoofs of pop culture references that she just doesn't understand.

Juhasz's main critique of the site is its architecture. Academics strive to make connections across disciplines, she says, but YouTube makes it difficult to provide context (often in the form of links), and to carry on complex conversations beyond the small space given for comments below the video.

Still, as a professor of media studies, she says ignoring the site is impossible. Instead, she wants students to draw their own conclusions after spending a semester working entirely within the framework and constraints of YouTube. She wants them to think about cultural references, what makes a great work of art and how to define a truly democratic medium. Is YouTube the latter? Juhasz says no -- in large part because of its corporate ownership.

You can view the class syllabus, read aloud by Juhasz. You can hear what topics she expects to cover. Among them is pedagogy -- how learning takes place online vs. in person; from peers vs. from a professor.

For the first month, students will answer generic questions such as "YouTube is..." and "YouTube works by..." in video submissions. Every assignment is posted online, and students will respond to their classmates through posts and other videos. In the later part of the class, students will choose a thesis topic relating to YouTube and can conduct research using only the Web site.

"That's the whole charm of the class," Juhasz says. "It's about it, and on it. You are living in it. I want them to see its limitations and embrace the culture of [academic] research. If we are going to do more and more of our living on sites like YouTube, what's not there that we need?"

The second half of the syllabus is intentionally vague, as Juhasz says she will, at that point, leave it to students to decide whether they want to continue taping the course or if they want to have a more conventional class setup.

Until that point, a different student will tape each session, deciding whether to put the camera still on a desk or carry it around the classroom as if filming a talk show. The student is, in essence, the producer, and Juhasz says she expects the video production to become a classroom competition.

She is asking several students to make their own version of a "video press release" to replace the current piece that is on the Web site announcing the course to the world. For this and other assignments, Juhasz gives little guidance on length and topic, other than to say (during the opening class): "You should go for it! This is an experimental class. Don't try to kiss my ass. You have a really good chance to say what you think to your peers and to the world."

As for grading? Juhasz says she isn't going to assess content so much as see whether a student completes the assignments and gives a sophisticated analysis. Both the midterm and final project ask students to respond -- either through written posts or videos -- to what they learned about YouTube.

With a course that leans so heavily on pop culture and new media, there's naturally the question of intellectual challenge. Juhasz says she sees the course as rigorous, as it challenges students to ask basic questions about media and society. A faculty curriculum committee that vets proposals for new courses granted its approval after asking questions about the demands on students.

Alan Jones, dean of faculty at Pitzer, said because the college tends to be experimental with pedagogy, the course is innovative but "not out of left field."

"The whole development of YouTube is an interesting part of the evolution of media in our culture," he says. "Teaching a course about it, on it, is an interesting way of exploring those issues.

“Unlike the safety of what can be the cloistered classroom in a small liberal arts setting, this product is out there in real time for anyone to see. That has challenges associated with it, but I am confident the class will handle them."

The course is already creating buzz. Roughly 50 students attended the first class (Juhasz is paring it down to about 35). A normal Pitzer class has fewer than 15 students.

While Juhasz will have to wait several months for official student responses to the course, she is already asking for commentary. On the first session video, one says: "I'm really impressed that this is the first class (at the Claremont Colleges) that's taking media and pop culture seriously."

Another adds: "I'm interested to see where this goes afterward -- if this catches on at other colleges."

Below the videos, comments are already appearing. Someone asks for a clearer picture of the syllabus and requests a transcript of the class's discussion. And, this being YouTube, another post says, quite simply, that the class is "the bomb."


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